Authors who began self-publishing in 2010 are often called ‘early adopters‘, but one Jacqueline Cooper was at it way back in 1994, when many of today’s indie authors were still at primary school. I make no apology for blogging again about my mother, because, at 5’1” and in her seventies, she was a feisty self-publishing pioneer.
Here’s her story, adapted from the Courier magazine, September 2000.
It’s simple. All you need is a little money you can afford to lose if your book doesn’t sell, and a lot of energy to do the marketing.
When I lived in the USA, well-known publishers produced two of my books. They took 18 months to appear in bookstores, and, although there were royalties and excellent reviews, they did not make me a fortune.
I moved to Geneva in 1990 as a retraitée (retired person), only sending the occasional story to a magazine or to the BBC. But in 1994 my old school, the English Girls’ College in Alexandria, was having its first ever reunion of Old Girls in London. What with revolutions, wars, marriages, births, we had lost touch and were scattered across the globe. One Old Girl had found us all, even the Japanese sisters we thought had perished at Hiroshima.
Here was a ready market, filled with nostalgia.
I still had vivid memories not included in my first book Cocktails and Camels. I was galvanized into action.
I approached a printer who had done work for the American International Women’s Club of Geneva (AIWC), and asked for an estimate. If I wanted 1,000 copies with a few black and white illustrations, how much would it cost? I bargained. I was sure this book, Tales from Alexandria, would sell. And I would have no commission to pay.
I kept track of what was going on. ‘Just passing by,’ I’d say, even though the printer was on the other side of town. I’m glad I did. Margins were uneven, illustrations either too dark, too light, or lopsided, and, when the books were finally delivered, page 66 was blank and the quotation at the top of Chapter Four was missing. I howled. The books were reprinted, the cost reduced, and the edition sold hand over fist.
At first I hadn’t planned to deal with bookstores. But why not sell Tales from Alexandria at Harrods? So I did. I then contacted two Geneva bookstores, Payot and ELM. Commission was high at 35-40%, except for ELM, our friendly bookstore.
In 1997, unable to find anything for children on Geneva’s famous Escalade of 1602, I decided to do my own book. I knew about children’s picture books, as I’d worked with the art director in New York on my Angus and the Mona Lisa. This time I went to the printer who produce the AIWC’s Courier magazine. He had no idea about picture books, but was keen to learn.
Toby and the Escalade is a bilingual English-French book with pictures on every page. It was expensive to produce. Although I knew what a page should look like, I had little idea of page layout, so I asked a friend to help. The book sold well. We went into a second edition that still sold well many years later.
You have to wait to make a profit from self-publishing.
At first, I loved marketing. I contacted the managers of a dozen Geneva bookshops in person, and out-of-town retailers by phone and with cards I’d made of the book cover. I offered them a copy of my book. I spoke to pupils at the International School, and was interviewed on a couple of radio stations.
I made posters which I sent to bookstores along with their order.
When I walked into Payot one day, there was my Toby and the Escalade poster hanging at the top of the stairs with the phrase ‘Vient de paraître!’ (Just in!)
I made only two press contacts, but newspapers contacted me because the book was selling, as the Tribune de Genève put it, ‘comme des petits pains’ (hot cakes to you and me). Then Naville bookstores called me from Lausanne, asking me urgently for copies.
Two department stores, Globus and Placette, refused to stock Toby and the Escalade. Globus only took books through distributors. But Placette changed their mind two years later when the buyer changed.
The same printer produced my next two books, Cat Day and William Tell. All three books were bilingual, which probably helped sales.
But even with my good printer there were problems with the illustrations for William Tell. The pictures were anaemic and bore little resemblance to the originals.
In the end, though, it all worked out, by which time I was a nervous wreck.
When I injured my back and could no longer run all over town with books, I contacted a big distributor used by Globus. He liked Toby and the Escalade and wanted to sell it for CHF 25 instead of CHF 20. He would take 50% of sales. I agreed to a contract. But when I read it carefully, I did not like the clause that said he would distribute every book I would ever write. When I asked if that clause could be removed, he angrily broke off the contract.
Marketing is a lot of work, and so is distributing: keeping track of orders, enclosing an invoice with each consignment, packaging and mailing heavy parcels.
The post office can come and collect them, but it is very expensive. There are bills to make out, phone calls to reluctant payers, and dealing with orders that keep coming in. I got small orders for one, two, or three books, and I had to make another invoice, another parcel, another trip to the post office – and then keep an eye on everything. For me the novelty has worn off. A bookstore in Nyon has owed me the princely sum of CHF39 for over six months. The other day, Payot faxed me at 7.30am for one copy of Cat Day.
Self-publishing has been fun, and it worked for me at first. But now I’m sick of it and don’t plan to do another book.
Though, come to think of it, a brilliant idea just popped into my head…